Watching the Olympics is a highlight every few years. Maybe you’re like me, captivated by athletes at the peak of physical excellence, giving their all to win a medal and make their countries proud … as you sit in front of the TV with one hand in a bag of chips.
What we’re seeing this summer is the result of many years of athletes’ total dedication to their chosen sport. At this level, training is a full-time job, and athletes rearrange their lives to accommodate it. They move to where the best training facilities are; they follow special diets; they wear appropriate gear. They religiously follow their coaches’ orders and they put up with the pain and strain of rigorous practice.
Olympic athletes’ entire lives narrow to the single objective of going for the gold. This makes me wonder, should we as Christians be any less committed in our pursuit of Jesus?
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul — who surely knew about the ancient games in Olympia, Greece — compares following Christ to a race several times. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 reads like an athletic playbook:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Paul continues this metaphor in Philippians 3:14, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus,” and 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
I would argue that following Christ deserves more discipline and single-minded focus than training for the Olympics. The goal is more than a medal and the pride of one’s country — it’s the glory of God and the eternal rewards of heaven.
Here’s the good news: We can all be “Olympians for Christ.” We can take our faith as seriously as a competitive swimmer, gymnast, or beach volleyball player. Instead of cardio training and carbo-loading, our daily regimen includes acts of love, worship, Bible reading, and prayer.
Being an Olympian for Christ could mean giving our all in one area, such as becoming a full-time worship pastor or making a life-changing move to a developing country to serve the poor in Jesus’ name.
Astounded by our generosity, amazed by our determination, and drawn irresistibly to our love, the world will see the hope we have in Jesus Christ.
But take heart: No natural talent is required to excel in living out your faith. There’s nothing stopping any of us from being top athletes in multiple “sports.” You can go for the gold in caring for the elderly, raising children to follow Christ, witnessing in your workplace, faithful tithing, giving to help refugees, volunteering in a homeless shelter, leading a small group at your church, mentoring a disadvantaged youth, befriending an immigrant family, and conducting your business affairs with honesty — doing it all with the clear motivation of sharing the good news of God’s love.
Some athletes stumble and fall with the whole world watching. The most decorated Olympian in history, swimmer Michael Phelps, made a series of high-profile mistakes after his triumph at the 2008 Olympics. After a stint in rehab, he rededicated himself to training, and now he’s competing in Rio as captain of the men’s swim team. We, too, might falter. But before the throne of grace, we can pick ourselves up and continue the race.
When U.S. medalists stand on the winners’ platform while the national anthem plays, our hearts swell with pride for our country and the athletes it produces. This is the same impact we can have as Olympians for Christ, after building his kingdom with excellence. Astounded by our generosity, amazed by our determination, and drawn irresistibly to our love, the world will see the hope we have in Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, who guarantees a crown that lasts forever.
World Vision U.S. President Rich Stearns is the author of The Hole In Our Gospel and Unfinished. Follow him at twitter.com/richstearns.